The Prime Minister Vanishes

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda couldn't have made it any clearer. Appearing before the cameras on March 24, he declared: "I don't understand what's going on." Of course, he didn't mean it in a general sense—Fukuda was referring to his difficulty comprehending the obstreperous opposition. But the remark, taken on its own, served as a neat indictment of his short but very troubled tenure.

That's certainly how Japanese voters heard it: the latest opinion polls put Fukuda's approval rating at a dismal 31 percent. Even members of his own party are starting to whisper that it's time for the caretaker prime minister, appointed last September, to go. It would be one thing if he'd alienated the public by making aggressive moves. Japan today is in real trouble, what with the worldwide financial crisis, a sputtering domestic economy—the jobless rate just hit 3.9 percent, the first spike in five months—and a mounting list of pressing political challenges. Many Japanese would therefore have forgiven bold attempts at reform. But unlike the can-do pragmatists sweeping into office elsewhere in Asia, Fukuda has offered little more than drift. "This government is pretty much bereft of ideas," says Tobias Harris, who has worked as an aide in the Japanese Parliament and now writes a blog on Tokyo politics. "It hasn't articulated any clear way forward."

Not only has he failed to offer an agenda, Fukuda can't even seem to avoid tripping over his own feet. While U.S. and European central bankers were meeting and mobilizing recently in an effort to stem the global credit crunch, Japan under Fukuda was stumbling around trying to find a central banker. The last governor of the Bank of Japan left office when his term expired on March 19. Despite the need for a strong hand—or any hand—at the helm, Fukuda's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has done little more than squabble over nominees with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (which now controls the Parliament's upper house). No sooner did DPJ grandees announce that candidates for the Bank of Japan job should come from outside the powerful Finance Ministry (to ensure their independence) than Fukuda proceeded to nominate not one but two Finance Ministry alums, whom the DPJ duly blocked. The result: the central monetary authority of the world's second largest economy still lacks a permanent leader.

Things weren't supposed to work out this way. When Fukuda took office following the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, supporters saw him as a safe pair of hands, a veteran LDP power broker who would avoid Abe's mistakes—above all his economic mismanagement and fixation on symbolic issues like increasing patriotism in the schools—while shepherding the party to the next general election, which could come at any time between now and the fall of 2009. Fukuda was also meant as an antidote to the wildly popular Junichiro Koizumi, who had sold his reform agenda and transformed Japanese politics by appealing directly to voters over the heads of traditional party power brokers and vested interests. After the end of Koizumi's term and Abe's flameout, Fukuda's appeal was based precisely on his conspicuous lack of charisma. Party elders thought that the Japanese electorate would welcome a cold pragmatist conducting business as usual after all the Sturm und Drang. Of course, it didn't hurt that that the bosses also thought Fukuda would be easier to control.

But Fukuda has instead turned out to be a waffler who doesn't seem to know his own mind or be able to settle on a single set of tactics. At one moment he stands tough, ramming controversial laws through Parliament by overriding opposition vetoes (as he did with his latest budget), while the next he's calling for talks and cautious compromise (as he's now attempting to do with legislation over a contentious gasoline tax). This has earned him and his team the media nicknames "the government that can't decide" and "the administration without policies." "The prime minister needs to make his philosophy clear, and take decisions on his own," says Nobuyuki Fukushima of the Tokyo Foundation, a think tank. And Fukuda hasn't.

That said, it would be unfair to blame him for all of Tokyo's problems. Fukuda inherited plenty of scandals from his predecessors—including a long-running mess over some 50 million lost or garbled pension records. Some apologists also argue that he's been forced to chart a tentative course by the conflicting demands of the interest groups whose financial and political support will be needed if the embattled LDP is to triumph in the next election. The party is also badly divided between its dominant factions. "The LDP was stripped of its old identity by Koizumi," argues Harris. "But nobody has been able to put a new stamp on [it]."

Then there's the problem of the opposition, which swept to power in the Diet's upper house last July. Jun Iio, a scholar at Tokyo's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says that Fukuda is, like many LDP veterans, accustomed to decades of one-party rule, and has little notion of how to compromise when necessary. For its part, the DPJ hasn't made things any easier and bears a share of the blame for gridlock. Like Fukuda himself, DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa has vacillated between bluster and calls for compromise, angering factions within his own party and contributing to the general sense of chaos.

Throughout his tenure Fukuda has displayed an unerring instinct for turning other people's mishaps into his own. He lets cabinet members publicly snipe at each other or propose policies that run counter to his government's stated aims, which include increasing foreign investment—a position undercut during Fukuda's visit to Davos this year, when members of his own government declared they would limit foreign stakes in airport operators. At other times, Fukuda has simply seemed asleep at the wheel. In February, for example, a Japanese Navy missile-cruiser ran over a fishing vessel in seas east of Tokyo, killing two fishermen. Rather than seize the moment to act decisively, the prime minister seemed barely to know what had happened: questioned by a reporter about the incident the morning the story broke, Fukuda could only mutter, "Oh, yes, right." Japanese TV viewers were left to wonder whether he was uninformed—or just didn't care.

Such displays of incompetence couldn't come at a worse time. The global financial crisis is hitting Japanese financial markets especially hard. Under Koizumi, foreign investors, thrilled by his forceful talk of reform, lifted Japanese stock prices to record highs. But recently those foreigners have begun stampeding for the exits—even though Japanese financial institutions have so far shown only minimal exposure to the subprime crisis in the United States. Since September, when Fukuda took office, the main section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange has lost 124 trillion yen ($1.24 trillion), or 25 percent of its value; during the same period the Dow has dropped by only 11 percent. This capital flight, analysts agree, owes mainly to Fukuda's inability to deliver on still-needed reforms.

So what's next? Fukuda's increasingly desperate air, and the growing backbiting within the LDP, has some observers suspecting he won't hold on much longer. But others warn he could take his rudderless party down with him when he falls—perhaps triggering a long-predicted realignment in Japanese politics as the LDP fragments. Still others are harboring hopes that a new savior could emerge, such as ex-foreign minister Taro Aso, said to be busily maneuvering behind the scenes. There are even tantalizing rumors of a Koizumi comeback. Only one thing's certain: matters are likely to get worse before they get better, and Fukuda's unlikely to be around when they do.